Elon’s municipal staff scored a figurative touchdown this week as the town’s elected leaders narrowly approved a 5-percent pay raise after months of rhetorical football over the adequacy of Elon’s employee compensation.
A bare majority of Elon’s town council ultimately gave this wage hike their blessing on Monday in order to staunch the salary-related defections that municipal officials contend are hobbling some of the town’s municipal departments.
Despite some lingering resistance from two dissident councilmembers, most of this group’s five voting members agreed that a percentage-based increase seemed like a good interim measure until the council can implement a more targeted strategy in the town’s next annual budget.
“I think the goal is to attract and retain top talent. Five percent is, in my opinion, a baby step . . . But we have to be prepared to do something now and to do something more later.”
– Elon mayor emily sharpe
“I think the goal is to attract and retain top talent,” asserted Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe, who presides over council meetings but only votes with its members in the event of a tie. “Five percent is, in my opinion, a baby step . . . But we have to be prepared to do something now and to do something more later.”
A grueling struggle
In the end, three of the council’s five regular members were willing to give the proposal a whirl, notwithstanding its anticipated cost, which was originally put at $138,634 for the remaining half of this fiscal year. The council also resolved, in another, identical 3-2 split, to allocate the funds needed to implement these across-the-board increases on January 29 – or roughly seven months into the financial cycle that ends on June 30 of this year.
This unusually divided decision may’ve marked something of a watershed in the council’s efforts to bring Elon’s salaries in line with other area cities and towns. Yet, it wasn’t exactly Elon’s first gambit in the increasingly high-stakes contest to attract the best and the brightest to its employ.
Just over a year ago, concerns about wage-induced turnover on Elon’s police force prompted town manager Richard Roedner to dip into the community chest to give each of the town’s police officers a mid-year boost in his or her salary. This move, which was driven in part by a colossal package of police pay raises in Burlington, didn’t extend to other municipal departments, although other town employees were included in a subsequent hike that appears in Elon’s budget for 2023/2024.
In spite of these efforts, Elon’s municipal administrators have remained apprehensive about wage-related defections. Prior to Monday’s decision, Roedner lamented that the town has continued to lose ground to other communities due to combination of inflationary pressure, Elon’s reluctance to spend Covid relief funds on staff pay raises, and lavish compensatory increases in other cities and towns.
“There are some significant deficits in some of our departments,” Roedner went on to assert during that evening’s proceedings, “and I was asked to prepare an item granting raises of 5 percent to all employees.”
Aside from its instructions to Roedner, the council also tried to placate the town’s workforce with a flurry of year-end bonuses. These remunerative stocking stuffers, which obtained the council’s unanimous nod at the end of December, have been worth $2,000 to each full-time employee and $1,000 to every part-timer. Meanwhile, the council authorized a formal pay study that held out the promise of additional, market-based adjustments in the town’s next annual budget.
At the same time that the council adopted these measures, its members also pledged to look at the aforementioned 5-percent boost when they reconvened in the New Year.
Originally slated to come up on January 9, this matter was initially postponed when the council called off its regularly-scheduled meeting that evening as torrential rains battered Alamance County. The proposed pay increase was then calendared for the council’s next scheduled get-together on Monday. But even then, the outlook remained stormy as ever for the approval of the proposed pay raises.
In fact, the town manager’s plan faced some rather dogged opposition from two councilmembers, whose partisan affiliations seem to put them at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think we’re underpaying some of our positions significantly, But we don’t know what those are. Instead, we’re arbitrarily increasing everybody five percent. . . and I want to do what’s right.”
– Elon mayor pro tem Monti Allison
Particularly uneasy about this proportional increase was Elon’s mayor pro tem Monti Allison, who laid out his objections at the start of that evening’s hour-long debate.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think we’re underpaying some of our positions significantly,” Allison began his remarks by way of disclaimer. “But we don’t know what those are. Instead, we’re arbitrarily increasing everybody five percent. . . and I want to do what’s right.”
Allison added that he has some misgivings about “throwing five percent across the board” without having, first, ascertained how much is actually needed to make Elon’s salaries competitive with other cities and towns. Allison also observed that the council hasn’t pinpointed which particular positions are actually below par in their wages. In the meantime, he objected that higher earners will benefit more from a percentage-based increase than their counterparts at the low end of the pay scale, and he complained that the council had never solicited public input about the town manager’s proposal.
Some of the mayor pro tem’s reservations were later echoed by councilman Quinn Ray, who likewise found fault with the seemingly haphazard size of the raise.
“I think we need to ask ourselves as a board what we are trying to do,” he went on to contend, “and if it’s the attraction aspect, then we’re still going to be behind other municipalities [even with the 5-percent increase in place].”
Supporters hit back
The five-percent figure was nevertheless championed by other members of Elon’s town council. Councilman Randy Orwig, for one, saw this seemingly haphazard move as an important opening gesture to Elon’s municipal staff.
“I agree. . . that we need to have [a broader] conversation down the road. But this is a statement to our employees that we are moving toward making their pay more equitable compared to other municipalities.”
– Elon town councilman Randy Orwig
“I agree…that we need to have [a broader] conversation down the road,” the councilmember conceded. “But this is a statement to our employees that we are moving toward making their pay more equitable compared to other municipalities.”
Meanwhile, councilmember Stephanie Bourland urged her colleagues not to let the minutiae of a particular plan distract them from their obligations to staff members. Bourland added that staff members who consider themselves underpaid will eventually run out of patience if the council continues to console them with its constant reminders about nonfungible benefits – like Elon’s supposedly enviable institutional culture.
“Our culture is something that we can only push for so long,” she argued. “Culture is not something that’s going to fill people’s plates.”
Elon’s mayor also joined the choir of voices in support of a 5 percent pay hike. Even so, Sharpe undercut her position somewhat when she acknowledged that this mid-year increase is unlikely to help Elon fill one especially obstinate vacancy in the town’s planning department. She also confessed that the town’s allegedly low salaries haven‘t deterred people from applying in droves for other positions – like the post of town clerk, which she said drew some 28 applications when it was recently advertised.
Sharpe’s rather inconvenient admissions were nevertheless drowned out by other voices – like that of Elon’s police chief Kelly Blackwelder, who seemed rather frustrated with the council’s dithering on the 5-percent raise.
“There’s a lot of ‘please be loyal;’ ‘please be patient,’ and there’s not a lot of putting our money where our mouth is.”
– Elon police chief Kelly Blackwelder
“There’s a lot of ‘please be loyal;’ ‘please be patient,’” she remarked in imitation of the council’s customary entreaties, “and there’s not a lot of putting our money where our mouth is.”
Blackwelder had previously joined Elon’s fire chief Landon Massey in endorsing a midyear pay raise when the council had originally considered the possibility in the third week of December. The two chiefs acknowledged at the time that they hadn’t seen too many salary-related defections but expressed some anxiety that their good fortune may be at an end.
Blackwelder said, in particular, that Gibsonville has been “blatantly” trying to lure away some its officers, although she went on to blame retirement – and, in one case, termination – for some of her department’s recent losses.
A legislative Hail Mary
As an alternative to the proposed 5-percent raise, Ray ultimately floated a flat, across-the-board increase that he initially set at $2,500. The councilman argued that this sort of hike would do more for people at the low end of the pay scale – a sentiment that eventually persuaded Allison to throw his support behind the idea.
A registered Democrat, Ray subsequently remarked on the curious manner in which the proposed pay raise had united him and Allison, whose Republican affiliation is something of a rarity on Elon’s town council.
Ray’s counterproposal nevertheless proved a much tougher sell with other municipal officials.
Sharpe noted, for instance, that a flat, $2,500 raise could be hard for the town’s finance department to enact at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, Roedner predicted that this measure would wreak havoc on the town’s carefully-wrought hierarchy of paygrades, and Blackwelder argued that it could tank with police officers who have a few years of experience and feel entitled to something more generous than those fresh from the academy.
Despite this blitz in defense of a 5-percent pay raise, Ray doubled down on his counterproposal for a flat salary increase. He told the rest of the council that an across-the-board raise of $2,500 would amount to a hike in excess of 5 percent for about a quarter of Elon’s municipal staff. He then, upped the ante to $3,000, and said that, at this level, the raise would exceed the 5-percent mark for roughly half of the town’s staff.
“I’m looking at trying to give everyone a living raise,” he added.
As Ray continued to press his case for a flat pay raise, it began to pique the interest of Orwig, who declared himself “open” to this proposal if it, indeed, does more for those at the bottom of the pay scale.
Yet, Orwig’s move toward Ray’s position was short circuited by Bourland, who made a motion to accept the proposed 5 percent raise as it had been presented by Roedner.
Bourland’s move drew an immediate second from councilman Michael Woods before it passed with Orwig’s added support.
Although both Allison and Ray voted against this proposal, they were nevertheless keen to assert their support for the underlying idea of equitable staff compensation. Bourland, for her part, was just as eager vouch for the good intentions of the two dissidents.
“I think the time spent on this vote shows that everybody cares about our employees,” she declared.
“The vote was split,” agreed mayor Emily Sharpe, “but the sentiment was not.”
Read the newspaper’s editorial page reaction to the town council’s action: https://alamancenews.com/in-elon-more-government-largesse-for-their-employees-at-taxpayer-expense-of-course-but-at-least-some-dissent-for-once/
IN OTHER ELON TOWN NEWS:
Public hearing scheduled for idea of instituting a hotel tax, which would affect only one establishment, the Inn at Elon on the Elon University campus: https://alamancenews.com/elon-to-hold-feb-13-hearing-on-proposed-municipal-hotel-tax/